High Stress Steaks

My whole life I have been very fortunate to have home-raised beef in my freezer.  It is not often that I have had to buy meat in the store, however, I do enjoy perusing the meat counter whenever I go grocery shopping to see what is available and how much it costs.  Recently, I was shopping with a fellow meat science grad student when something in the meat counter caught our eye. 

The picture on the left shows product that would be considered a
“dark cutter.”

This picture shows two very different appearing steaks.  The package on the right appears normal, being the typical bright cherry red color that we would expect to see.  The package on the left, however, is a much darker color.  

The condition of this product is known in the industry as being a “dark cutter.”  As the name implies, it produces a very dark, unappealing product.  It is caused by long term stress of the animal that can be influenced by genetics, environment, or management.

The simple explanation:  Stress causes muscles to tense.  When this happens all the energy in the muscles is used.  When the animal is harvested, there is no energy left in the system to produce lactic acid and cause the meat to have a drop in pH.  This leads to product that is darker in color, firm in texture due to holding water, and dry on the surface since all the moisture is held within the cut.  For a more scientific explanation, read on.  If this is enough, skip to the final paragraph.

To get scientific: muscle tissue stores energy in the form of glycogen.  When we use our muscles, that glycogen is converted to lactic acid. (Think about when you try a new workout and are often sore the next day.  This is due to a buildup of lactic acid in your muscles since you used the muscle’s energy.)  When an animal is stressed for a long period of time, it uses up the glycogen within the system and depletes the lactic acid. (Think about when you’re stressed.  Do you tense up? Do you clench your fists and your jaw?  Your muscles are working.  The same thing happens to livestock.) 

When an animal is harvested, a lot of things happen as muscle is converted to meat.  One of these things is a drop in pH.  Living muscle tissue is very neutral, with a pH of approximately 7.0; whereas beef has a pH of approximated 5.6 (making it more acidic than living muscle). The drop in pH is caused by all of the glycogen that is left in the system at harvest being converted to lactic acid.  If an animal has been stressed for a long period of time, there is no glycogen available in the system, and there won’t be any lactic acid to drop the pH.  This causes the meat to have a very dark color and bind water tightly, creating a dry, tacky surface.  This produces a product that is dark, firm and dry.

It is important to note, that this product is still safe to consume, but due to its high level of moisture, is often used in further processed products.  Dark cutting beef is only found in approximately 1-2% of harvested cattle, often following severe changes in harsh weather.  Producers do all they can to limit this occurrence by controlling the animal’s environment and stress level.  Housing animals indoors, providing shade in the summer if housed outdoors, consistent feeding times, treating sickness, these are just a few practices that producers use to help mitigate stress of the animal.  Animal care is a priority to producers and ensuring a safe, high quality product for consumers is their mission.


The Art and Science of Aging Beef

Have you ever seen the phrase “aged beef,” or “dry aged beef,” in a menu or on an add and wondered what it really means?  Aging is very important for tenderness development in beef.  It allows enzymes that are naturally found in the meat to be active and breakdown protein that leads to tenderness.  Beef can be aged for just a few days or up to a couple months before it is eaten.  Outside of tenderness, aging can also be used to help with flavor development.  Depending on how it is used, aging is not just an important science but an art.

There are two types of aging that used in the beef industry: wet aging and dry aging. 

Wet aging is storing large cuts of meat in a sealed, vacuum package bag under refrigerated temperatures, and is the most commonly used form of aging in the industry.  This method is great because the packaging inhibits cross contamination with other products, controls bacteria growth and retains the moisture from the product within the bag.  Since the product doesn’t dry out, there is very little waste once removed.  Once removed from the package, the product is further cut into steaks and roasts before being sold to the end consumer.

Dry aging is storing the product without packaging in open air.  This method allows for mold growth on the product as well high amounts of moisture loss.  Although this may sound unappealing, the mold growth allows for intense flavor development (example: one of the molds that is commonly associated with blue cheese can be found on dry aged meat, giving the meat a blue cheese like flavor).  Once the product is ready to be divided into retail cuts, the dried portion and mold is cut off and discarded. 

These are strip loins that were used for a research project in our lab this semester. The bright red loins were wet aged. Notice that they do not have the same “crust” like the others that would need to be removed before steaks are cut. The other loins were dry aged for 45 days.

Dry aging is really where the art and science meet.  Mold growth allows for flavor development, but also has the potential for unsafe organisms to develop.  Controlling temperature and airflow around the product is key to limit dangerous growth.  Keeping these factors in mind account for the science, but how about the art?  Dry aging has not been extensively studied, but has been done for ages.  From high end restaurants, to meat cellars, dry aging can be done in many different places and conditions.  Choosing the cut of meat to age, length of time of aging, temperature control, etc., each person doing the aging may have a different method to their madness.  It’s an incredible collaboration of meat science and culinary creativity.

Calcium and Beef?

Calcium and beef, not a combination that you hear paired together very often, but it is a very important combo!  Calcium is important in beef as it helps make the meat tender.  How does it do that you may ask?  Well let me tell you…

All muscle contains enzymes, called calpains, that breakdown protein and are activated by calcium.  These enzymes are important during life because they help remove any weak, or injured proteins in your muscles and let new, healthy protein be formed.  Think about exercising.  When you work out, your muscle fibers are injured and the protein that makes them up is damaged.  Calpains help get rid of those injured proteins and let new, healthy proteins take their place, helping your muscles gain strength.

Postmortem, when this muscle has been converted to meat, those calpains are still active.  The only difference is that meat no longer has energy available to rebuild the muscle.  Calpains are busy breaking apart the protein, without new protein being formed.  This continuous breakdown is what causes meat to be tender.  Think about eating a steak. Did your mouth just water at the thought?  If you have a whole steak and try to just take a big bite without first cutting it, it will probably be kind of tough to chew through.  Cutting the steak across the grain into bite-sized pieces makes it much more tender and easier to chew.  Calpains “cut” those fibers and break them down, leading to a more tender product.

Calcium is important because it is responsible for activating these enzymes.  Without calcium, there would be no need to age beef, because the enzymes responsible for tenderness wouldn’t be active.  The beef we consume would be much tougher than what we know it to be today.  It is so crazy to me that although beef isn’t known to be a good source of calcium in our diet, it still requires calcium to create a palatable product.

While at University of Idaho, my research has been focused on finding a method to improve beef tenderness by activating calpains earlier postmortem.  Basically, I am trying to find a way to make more calcium available to kick the enzymes into high gear!  This project has kept me busy in the lab the past few months, but it has been so fun and exciting to see the data pour in.  I am continually amazed at the amount of science that is involved in making a steak taste great, but it has been so much fun to be a part of the research!

The Differences in Ground Beef

This weekend I was walking through the grocery store and stopped to browse the meat counter.  My family raises cattle, so growing up we were fortunate to be able to fill our freezer with home-raised beef.  I try to look at the meat counter whenever I get groceries to be aware of what products are offered, and how much they cost.

While perusing the beef section, a few packages of ground beef caught my eye.  There were three options of ground beef, all selling for a different price and appearing to be a different color.  Today, I would like to discuss the differences in fresh ground beef in terms of color and price.

Looking in the meat case, there were three options of fresh ground beef:

  • 93% XX-Lean Ground Beef ($5.08/lb)
  • 85% X-Lean Ground Beef ($4.08/lb)
  • 73% Regular Ground Beef ($2.98/lb)
Left to Right: 93% XX-Lean Ground Beef, 85% X-Lean Ground Beef, 73% Regular Ground Beef. The XX-Lean product is noticeably more red than the regular product due to the lean to fat ratio.

When I first saw the product, the first thing that stood out to me was the differences in color.  As you can see in the photo, there is quite a variation in redness between the XX-Lean Ground Beef, and the Regular Ground Beef.  This difference is due to the fat content.  The name of the product is describing the percent of lean (actual meat, not fat), within the product.  For example, the XX-Lean product was 93% lean meat, and 7% fat; while the Regular product was 73% lean meat, and 27% fat.  Being that lean beef is a bright, cherry red color, while fat is white, the different blend of meat/fat leads to color differences.

The second thing that stuck out to me was the difference in price.  $2.10/pound is quite the difference!  Driving the price is once again, the ratio of lean to fat.  Although fat has a lot of benefits in terms of flavor, juiciness, ease of cooking, etc., it is often seen as a waste product.  If you brown the ground beef, or make hamburger patties, a lot of that fat will cook off and be discarded.  Because of this, it is seen as a lower value product.  In the 1.25 lb package of Regular ground beef, there is approximately 1/3 lb of fat.  In the XX-Lean package, there is only about 0.08 lbs of fat, making it a higher value product.

Now, all three of these ground products are a good option to take home, depending on what fits into your budget and how you intend to use it.  No matter what blend you choose, remember that beef is an excellent source of protein and 9 other essential nutrients.  It’s a healthy option that will leave your family full and satisfied.

Graphic produced by the Beef Checkoff

If you come across anything interesting at the meat counter and have questions, please send them my way!  If I don’t know the answer, I’d love to do some digging to help find it!

Hormone Havoc

A few months ago, I met a woman on an airplane who was on her way to a yoga retreat.  After visiting for a while, I told her I was studying meat science.  She proceeded to ask lots of questions (as many people do, and I very warmly welcome).  We got on the topic of hormone usage in livestock.  She told me that she was worried that excess hormones in meat were causing her grandson to develop womanly features.

Hormone usage in livestock production is a common source of curiosity and insecurity of consumers that are not tied to the industry.  It is totally understandable.  If I didn’t grow up involved in the industry, I would question it as well.

Hormone implants are used in growing livestock (specifically, cattle) to help them be more efficient in converting feed to muscle.  Hormones are also known as repartitioning agents.  Meaning, they take the energy from the feed and rather than the animal accumulating excess fat, they use that energy to build muscle.  That muscle is what turns to meat after the animal has been harvested.

Implants are very small and administered in the form of a small pellet under the skin in the back of the calves’ ear.  This allows for slow release of the hormone, and since the ears are discarded, ensures that the pellet does not end up in human food production.  The FDA (Food and Drug Administration), is active in ensuring that meat from animals implanted with hormones is safe to eat.  If it was a concern for human health, the practice would not be used and the meat would not be allowed on the market.

Now, some people ask, “do hormones used end up in the meat.”  It is important to note that every food has naturally occurring hormones.  Including beef.  My favorite example to compare this is beef vs. cabbage.

One, 3 oz. serving of implanted beef has approximately 1.9 nanograms of estrogen, (compared to 1.3 ng of non-implanted beef).

One serving of cabbage contains 2,000 nanograms of estrogen.

It would take 1,052 servings of beef to get the same amount of estrogen as 1 serving of cabbage.  That is 197 pounds.  The average American consumes approximately 57 pounds of beef per year.  Following those numbers, it would take 3.5 years to get the same amount of estrogen from beef as one serving of cabbage.

Image from a previous post written for South Dakota Farm Families, Farmer’s Daughter Segment.

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t eat cabbage.  One nanogram is equal to one billionth of a gram.  One billionth.  That is trace amounts. I am a huge supporter of having a well-balanced diet, including beef and cabbage.  Yes, there are other hormones besides just estrogen used in beef production; however, similar examples as this can be found to demonstrate the trace amounts passed to food for human consumption.

There is so much regulation done to ensure safe, high quality food is making it into the hands of the consumer.  Whether that be beef, cabbage, or any other item you choose to purchase at the store. If hormone implants caused a food safety risk, let me assure you, it would not be a practice utilized by any producer.




One Bad Apple

I recently took a day-trip to Couer d’Alene, ID (an absolutely beautiful area, I highly recommend a visit). Anyway, while I was there, I came across a big street fair with vendors from all over the area.  Clothing, jewelry, food galore, and mixed in the crowd was a PETA demonstration. 

Participants were dressed in black clothing and white masks, and were holding screens that played videos showing animal abuse.  The ag community continually struggles sharing our story with consumers, while this group can confidently degrade everything we are working towards.  Now, I know many people don’t fully trust PETA’s representation of the industry, but often think, “they had to get the video from somewhere.”   

The easiest way for me to think about and describe the work PETA is doing, is with the following scenario:

Imagine that you were at a farmer’s market.  A beautiful day with booths full of fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables all grown locally.  You stop at a stand, Annie’s Apples, to buy fruit for the week.  While looking at the big, shiny, red apples, you come across one that is small, disformed, bruised and just mushy.  Rotten. 

Seeing this rotten apple, you decide that if she had one bad apple, the rest of them at her stand must not be worth buying.  Annie doesn’t raise her apples properly.  If this one is bad, how can the rest be good?  She can’t be trusted. 

You then tell your friend’s not to buy apples from Annie.  This develops as you and your friends share on social media a picture of the gross little apple.  Now, all your connections not only think that Annie’s apples are bad, but every farmer must produce those bad apples.  They’re not only skeptical of buying apples from Annie, but from any apple producer.  No apples from farmer Annie, Adam, Alex, etc., etc.  Since their apples can’t be trusted, that means they can’t be trusted.  They’re abusing the apples just to make a quick buck.  They don’t actually care about the apples or the people eating the apples.

This scenario seems a little crazy, right?  Who would purposely abuse an apple?  And if one person thought that was a good idea, does it make sense that every apple farmer would purposely sell rotten fruit?  No. If an apple is bruised it isn’t going to taste good, and will cost the farmer money by trying to sell a poor-quality product.

Well, the same thing is true of animal agriculture.  Most farmers care deeply about their livestock.  Stress causes the animals to lose weight, makes it more difficult to care for their young, lowers their milk producing ability, causes meat quality problems.  Basically, stressed animals go against every goal that a farmer has for his livestock.  Those videos come from bad apples; often in the form of undercover, ‘animal rights activists’ working on farms.

Yes, there are a few bad apples out there.  There always has been, and there always will be.  But next time you see something posted, or maybe an in-person PETA protest, I hope that you don’t let one bad apple destroy your opinion on the whole bunch.

The Science Behind a Steak

Did you know that every food and drink item that you can buy in a grocery store has been through various forms of scientific testing?  Whether it be for pathogens, allergens, microbial growth, flavor development, ingredient use, sensory appeal, the list goes on and on, there is a lot of science that goes into the food we eat!

The same goes for the products that you can purchase at the meat counter.  Now, when I say that there is science in your steak, I don’t mean that it has been chemically altered.  I mean that there has been significant testing put into place to help improve that piece of meat to provide a great eating experience and safe product for you and your family.  One of those tests is Warner-Bratzler Shear Force (WBSF).

Although a long name, WBSF is a simple concept.  Imagine biting into a big, juicy steak and having one of these two thoughts:

 “This is so tender, it just melts in my mouth,” or “This is so tough, I feel like I’m chewing on rubber!”

Sound familiar?  These two thoughts are describing the tenderness of the steak.  WBSF is a measurement of tenderness.  To complete this test, steaks are cooked and cores (basically bite sized pieces) are removed.  The cores are then cut with a machine that measures how many kilograms of pressure it takes to cut through the piece (the force it takes to shear the core, hence the name).  This represents how much pressure you would have to use to chew through the product.  The lower the WBSF value, the more tender the steak.  Using this information, we can find different things that can improve tenderness, whether that be a production method (think the animal’s environment it is raised in or what it is fed), a processing method (how long the product was aged, how the meat was cut, etc.) or cooking method (rare vs. well-done). 

WBSF is often used alongside taste panels. It is helpful to use WBSF as it gives a definite number without being influenced by personal preference.  However, taste panels are necessary because even if a machine tells us it should taste good, it’s people who need to enjoy it.

For those of you who are new to The Meating Room and haven’t read my bio, I am currently pursuing my master’s degree in meat science.  Last week, our lab group spent three days running WBSF analysis.  Three days, 230 steaks, 1,400+ cores to cut, all to try to find a method to improve steak tenderness and consistency for the end consumer. 

This is just a tiny fragment of the science that goes into producing great tasting steak.  As I continue with my project, I hope to share more of the work we are doing in the lab and to give you an insight into what a “meat scientist” really does!

I am an Animal Scientist.

It still amazes me sometimes that I am going to be an animal scientist.  When I started college, I wanted to be a banker.  I started off my education by pursuing a degree in agricultural business, and later added the animal science major because although I grew up on a farm, I wanted to have a better understanding of the whole industry.  The dual degree allowed me to take courses as vast as economics and agricultural marketing, to swine production and livestock nutrition.  It provided a broad view of the industry.

Now, as I pursue a master’s degree in meat science (formally a master’s in Animal Science), I can use that broad view to focus on specifics.  For example, understanding the combination of livestock genetics, nutrition and environment animals are raised in can help us make predictions as to what the characteristics of the meat will be.  Will this combination provide a lean product?  Will it be high quality (ex.  choice vs. prime)?  Will this animal produce a good eating experience for our consumers?

The past couple weeks, I have been able to attend two conferences that showcased research being done by animal scientists all over the country.  From meat science, to nutrition, to genetics, to reproduction, there is an incredible amount of research going on to help improve livestock production.  No matter what discipline the researchers are focused, we all have the same goal:  to discover ways to make livestock production more efficient and sustainable, to offer resources to producers to help produce the best product possible, and to improve production methods to best care for the livestock we raise. 

When people think of animal science, I am certain there are a lot of mixed reactions.  I certainly get an array of responses from people I talk to on airplanes!  Animal science is an incredible field and offers a vast array of opportunities.  I am so thankful that I made the decision to add animal science courses to my undergraduate degree.  I never could have predicted the opportunities it would bring or the direction it would lead, but I am certainly excited to see where it goes!

Branding and Green Grass

This time of year is busy for farmers.  Most have finished up calving and are ready to get the cows to pasture.  For the past few months, many producers have had their cows kept close to home to make things easier for calving time.  Now, it is time to take the ladies to greener pastures for the summer.

Before cows go to pasture, a few tasks must be completed.  Calves are typically vaccinated to help keep them healthy and many are branded.  Some producers brand their calves the first year they go to the pasture with their mothers, while others wait until they are a little older. 

There are different types of branding that serve different purposes.  My family uses both hot branding and freeze branding on our operation.  

We use freeze branding to number our animals.  It is done using a branding iron that is frozen using dry ice and liquid nitrogen or alcohol.  Once the irons are cold, they are pressed onto the desired location for 30-60 seconds.  This type of branding kills the color follicle of the hair.  Although the hair will grow back, it will not have any pigment and will be white in appearance.  This method of identification is ideal because it allows for easy ID of the animal during any season and from a distance.  Our cattle also have ear tags that match their brand number; however, tags can be difficult to read.  If an animal is sick or has any reason to be noted, a freeze brand makes identification much easier!

This is a picture that my brother took of one of our bulls. The number brand that you see on his side was done using freeze branding. This practice helps us easily identify the animal.

Hot branding on the other hand, is used to put the farm’s brand on the animal.  Brands are unique to the producer and can help distinguish one farmer’s cattle from another’s.  This is ideal for cattle that will be moved to pasture for a season with little oversight by the farmer.  If a fence is broken and the cows get out, they can easily be identified to who they belong to.  Brands must be registered to the state and approved to be used.

Branding is a quick method to help easily identify and place ownership of an animal.  It is an effective tool for producers to use and can be very beneficial in running their operation.   Once this job is complete, the cows are ready to enjoy their summer on green grass!

Meatless Monday

Recently, a private University in my home state of South Dakota  announced that they will be implementing a “Meatless Monday” program.  This is supported by their claims that plant based proteins offer more nutritive value than meat and that meat is generally more expensive than plant-based proteins.  I’d like to take a little time today to talk about these two points and see how they really add up.

Plant based proteins offer more nutritive value than meat.

The South Dakota Beef Industry Council shares this graphic and I think it is really eye opening.  I’ll admit that it is easy to assume that plant -based proteins will offer more protein per calorie than meat.  But in all reality, when looking at the quantity of these products that need to be consumed to reach the protein level provided by one serving of beef, we quickly see that it is not the case. 

Per 25 g protein:

Quinoa: 666 calories

Peanut butter: 613 calories

Beef: 173 calories

In addition to being low calorie, that one serving of beef provides 10 essential nutrients- Protein, Iron, Choline, Selenium, Vitamin B, Zinc, Phosphorus, Niacin, Riboflavin.  It offers an incredible amount of nutritive value!  

Meat is generally more expensive than plant-based proteins.

In addition to an animal science degree, I also received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business.  The business side of me always perks up when I hear claims of ‘more expensive’.  It is time to crunch some numbers.

I have heard a lot of talk recently about the Beyond Burger, so I thought that would be a great example to look at.  When initially comparing the Beyond Burger pricing vs. the ground beef patties, it appears to be less expensive.  However, looking further we see that on a per pound basis, the Beyond Beef patties are almost twice the price of both ground beef patties (the difference in the patties is the fat content.  80% lean vs. 93% lean.  The 93% lean is more expensive on a per pound basis because it has a lower fat content).   Don’t let the face value of a product lead you astray.  It is important to judge actual economic value of a product not on the simple  dollar value it receives, but price per pound basis.  It is amazing how much of a difference that can make!

Image and Price from Walmart.com

One other thing that I think is interesting to point out about the Beyond Burger is the ingredient list.  Consumers continually demand a high quality product with a clean label. Looking at the Beyond Burger ingredient list we see that it contains over 15 ingredients! 

“Water, pea protein isolate*, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, contains 1% or less: apple extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, beet juice extract, pomegranate fruit powder, lycopene color (from tomato).”

Now let’s compare that ingredient list to that of the ground beef patties:

“Ground Beef and Natural Flavorings.”

Two ingredients!  That’s it!  The Food Safety Inspection Service allows spices and seasonings such as black pepper, onion powder, and garlic to be defined as natural flavorings.  It is a simple product that offers so much to the consumer. 

Simply put, animal based proteins are a relatively low calorie, low cost option that are supported by a clean label. Protein takes up a large portion of the grocery budget.  We all want to feed our families a high quality product.  When thinking about it in that sense, meat offers the most bang for your buck. For that reason,  I plan to keep meat in my diet on Mondays, and every other day of the week!